Otello is a story of "otherness." It is a story of how a man of honor and courage, in a strange place with few friends, is destroyed by a trusted brother in arms, Jago. Jago despises Otello for passing over him for promotion and preferment. And Jago also despises Otello for having found love and happiness with his beautiful young wife, Desdemona. At heart a nihilist, Jago subtly poisons Otello's heart against her and sets the tragedy toward its conclusion.
Regina Opera provides an excellent, detailed synopsis; and the Wikipedia articles on Verdi and Otello are very good introductions to the composer and his amazing opera.
Here are two excerpts from Otello to give you some impressions of the musical and dramatic qualities of the score. Otello has such roles that artists strive to perform despite, or perhaps because of, their intense dramatic and vocal demands.
In the first excerpt, the finale of the 2nd act, Otello (José Cura) is joined by Jago (Marco Vratogna) as they swear by Heaven itself to find Otello's revenge for Desdemona's supposed betrayal.
Second, Desdemona (Mirella Freni) appears at the beginning of 4th act in a scene full of premonitions of death. She sings the "Willow Song" about a hapless young woman who is killed for love. Afterward, she says the Ave Maria for protection for "the one who bows her head under injustice and under misfortune."
Otello was Verdi's next-to-last major work, the one that occupied him longer than any of his other operas. Composed between 1884-1886, Otello was a huge success at its Milan La Scala premiere in 1887 and was first presented in New York at the Academy of Music in 1888, a year before its appearance in London and long before its premiere in Paris in 1894.
Verdi had long loved the works of Shakespeare and had composed a successful treatment of Macbeth in the 1840s, revised for Paris in 1865. He considered composing Hamlet and worked off and on with King Lear for a number of years in between other projects. It was not until he met the literary figure and composer Arrigo Boito that his love for Shakespeare found a librettist capable of firing his imagination to produce the opera that is widely considered the pinnacle of Italian operatic art.
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